tv review

Jack Ryan Is a (Literally) Explosive Throwback

Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

In the first episode of Jack Ryan, there’s a moment when it’s easy to buy that this really is a Tom Clancy story. Ryan, played in this Amazon series by John Krasinski, is at a fancy-pants party that he didn’t want to attend. He’s accosted by his former Wall Street boss and asked, with all the subtlety of a falling anvil, to sell out the government by revealing inside information about the current political strategy toward North Korea. Polite but firm, Ryan demurs. Frustrated now and not sure how to entertain himself at this boring party, Ryan then turns his attention to an attractive woman, Cathy (Abbie Cornish), who also happens to be his ex-boss’s daughter. With a promising pickup in motion, a glint of Krasinski’s earlier role as Jim from The Office flickers across his face. He’s pleased with himself. Then every party guest turns to the horizon, where a helicopter comes swooping out of the sky and lands dramatically on the lawn. Military personnel leap out, sprinting to tell Jack Ryan that he has to go — he’s needed in Yemen. Before being pulled away, he turns back to Cathy. “I dunno, maybe I could …?” he tries, apologetically, as the helicopter pilot cuts him off: “Sir, we have to go.” He cannot finish his thought. Duty calls.

In that scene, at that small moment, Krasinski is Jack Ryan. He’s the CIA analyst of legend, the character from Clancy’s novels who claims to be just a pencil pusher, but who invariably finds himself on a plane wearing a flak jacket. He’s the guy who, in earlier feature-length incarnations, was played by Harrison Ford, wearing rolled-up shirtsleeves and a grim smile. That Jack Ryan often seemed a little embarrassed by the fact that he’d been put in this position. Ford’s off-center smile in that role communicated how much he’d really rather have just stayed at home if he could. But, dammit, as long as Jack Ryan had to be here, he was going to do the thing right.

That version seems like a throwback figure of militaristic, white hypermasculinity that’s overdue for reconsideration, but I still wish there were more of Ford’s take on the character in this series. When Ryan does show some personality here, often in the scattered, small romance scenes with Cathy, he’s appealing. He has hints of self-deprecation and comic timing. In that scene with the surprise helicopter, he’s almost even amused by the spectacle he’s created. But in too many other places, he’s a blank, a furrowed brow, a silent grimness with no hint of an accompanying crooked smile.

Some of that stems from how the character is written. Ryan is a man of few words, and he tends to get straight to the point. But the central sketchiness of Jack Ryan is because there’s just much less of him than you’d expect in a show called Jack Ryan. Huge chunks of the series are spent with other characters: with the Big Bad, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman); with Suleiman’s wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), who’s uncomfortable with her husband’s radicalism; with Suleiman’s brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman); and with a U.S. drone pilot named Victor (John Magaro). In many cases, that distance is a good thing — Jack Ryan devotes a lot of time to trying to contextualize Ryan’s anti-terrorism raison d’être inside a global picture of terrorism and its causes. Suleiman’s vendetta against the West is motivated by trauma he experienced in childhood thanks to United States intervention in the Middle East; he’s not evil for evil’s sake. Modern warfare, especially the ethics and collateral damage of the U.S. drone program, keep the show’s world from tilting too far in the direction of pure jingoism.

In the first six episodes made available for critics, though, the tricky things — like Suleiman’s legitimate grievances against the West, or drone pilot Victor’s immense reticence about his role in ending human life from a bunker thousands of miles away — touch Jack Ryan’s life very little. The world may be messy, and in the grand scheme of things, there may be nuance and history and moral uncertainties. But Jack Ryan doesn’t linger on those details to create shadow or depth in its protagonist. The show gestures at ambiguity, and at the edges of its map, the borders between righteousness and zealotry get thinner and less clear. In the center, though, at the axis around which everything spins, the math is simpler. Jack Ryan: good. Terrorists: bad.

If Jack Ryan spent more time shading in Ryan’s personal world, there might be more chance for the character to feel three-dimensional. It could’ve made his affection for Cathy into something more than an obligatory demonstration of heterosexuality, or turned his relationship with his boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce) into something more complex than surface-level, gruff male respect. I hope that Pierce’s Greer gets even more time in later episodes because his character — a man recently demoted from a higher post, an American military official who converted to Islam in adulthood — is one of the most interesting of the main cast, and Pierce’s performance is the one that most draws your attention.

Krasinski does perform the action bits well, which is good because there are many of them. In Jack Ryan’s world, threat is a thing full of grenades and poison gas and more grenades and bullets and maybe a terrible biological weapon, and did I mention the grenades? The show is designed around a particular vision of terrorists and terrorism, and it’s one that betrays a distinct, unwavering, slightly retrograde worldview of what constitutes a foreign threat to the United States. It’s uninterested by Russian hackers trying to dismantle American democracy, or leaked state secrets that escalate into a damaging global trade war. This Jack Ryan is here to stop the next 9/11. We know this because he mentions 9/11 several times in the first episode.

More than anything else, what struck me about Jack Ryan is how much of it is built on a worldview defined by what Ryan fears. No one else sees what a danger Suleiman poses, until he forces them to. He’s worried that a bombing may happen at any moment, and usually, his fear is validated. It’s a worldview I understand: It’s hard not to see the appeal of a show about a world full of terrifying things that’s also ready-stocked with a man like Jack Ryan, whose mere presence is a promise that the scary thing will be neutralized. But it’s exhausting to live in that world all the time. I wish Jack Ryan were less focused on the fear, and more of it could be like that one glorious moment when a helicopter materializes out of nowhere and gives Ryan the chance to be debonair. If Jack Ryan is the white male superhero we must rely on to save the world, it’d be nice to know him a little better. It’d be nice to spend less time stuck inside his inescapable dread.

Jack Ryan Is a (Literally) Explosive Throwback